NEW YORK — Tua Tagovailoa wheeled between tables for interviews and then through the halls of the expansive New York Stock Exchange building, his injured left ankle constantly propped up and preserved by a large plastic boot.
Just days after undergoing a minor arthroscopy procedure to repair a high ankle sprain suffered last weekend in the SEC Championship Game, the Alabama quarterback was busy making the required rounds with the help of a medical scooter. The weekend will culminate with Saturday’s Heisman Trophy ceremony from the PlayStation Theatre in Times Square.
Of course, never far away was Alabama’s head athletic trainer, Jeff Allen, trying to do his best to blend back into the background.
“Any chance that I get to go back to my room, Jeff is with me all the time. It's something I don't like but I'm very appreciative of it,” Tagovailoa said. “If it's going to get me a lot better quicker, then I'm more than open to it. … It's cool to have a scooter, too."
It’s been a whirlwind experience, which began with Thursday night’s College Football Awards show in Atlanta before taking a private jet to New York early Friday morning, and one the unflappable Tagovailoa hasn’t even been able to process yet, not with all the rehabilitation he’s constantly doing.
“Honestly, I haven’t had time to really think too much of, ‘Wow, this is really happening,’ or to soak everything in because I’ve been getting treatment every time I go back to my room. Guys coming in and checking to see if I’m good or whatnot,” Tagovailoa said Friday while sitting at a table surrounded by dozens of reporters, mere feet away from the coveted Heisman Trophy.
Tagovailoa is one of three Heisman Trophy finalists, along with Ohio State sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma junior quarterback Kyler Murray. All three are in New York in anticipation of finding out who will win the 25-pound bronze statue presented annually to the top player in college football.
While his Heisman stock has dropped considerably after a sub-par showing against Georgia, Tagovailoa hasn’t let that dampen his spirits ahead of a moment he’s dreamed for as long as he’s been throwing a football.
“It’s been a childhood dream to be able to be here,” said Tagovailoa, who’s thrown for an Alabama record 37 touchdowns and 3,353 yards while spearheading the most prolific offense in Crimson Tide history this season.
“I’m here and now to be able to win it, I’d be able to represent something bigger than just myself, to be able to represent the University of Alabama, my team, my culture, Hawaii back home and everything that I stand for.”
Tagovailoa is hoping to be the second native Hawaiian of Polynesian decent to win the Heisman Trophy, following in a path first laid by 2014 winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon. Mariota once took a young Tagovailoa under his wing back when Mariota was still quarterbacking at St. Louis High in Honolulu.
Four years later, when Tagovailoa was tossing touchdowns for the St. Louis Crusaders, the future Crimson Tide quarterback got his first live glimpse of the coveted award when Mariota returned home and put it on display at the high school.
“It's amazing that you can see it firsthand,” Tagovailoa said Friday.
For the first time in nearly a decade, since former Alabama running back Mark Ingram edged out Stanford’s Toby Gerhart by a mere 28 votes to win the trophy in 2009, the Heisman race is considered a bit of a toss-up the night before the big event. Tagovailoa was the favorite much of the season before Murray appeared to pull ahead last week during the league championship games.
Even the finalists appeared at a loss when talk of favorites or expected winners were brought up.
“If I win, I win. If Tua wins, he wins. If Dwayne wins, he wins,” Murray said Friday. “But I think we’re all here for a reason and everybody’s deserving of it. So I’m excited.”
While Tagovailoa is vying to be the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman, following wins by Ingram and former Crimson Tide tailback Derrick Henry in 2015, Murray is trying to be the fourth Sooners quarterback to take home the honor, and second straight after Baker Mayfield was the runaway winner last season. Haskins, who leads the country with a Big Ten-record 47 touchdowns and 4,580 passing yards this season, is considered a darkhorse to become Ohio State’s first Heisman winner since Troy Smith in 2006.
“I don’t really need the pub to feel like I did what I needed to do this year,” Haskins said. “I mean, I broke Drew Brees’ record. I broke a lot of Big Ten records, and that’s enough for me. I just wanted to be considered. Winning or losing the Heisman doesn’t make or break my season for me.”
Fast friends with both of the other finalists, Tagovailoa echoed Haskins’ comments, preferring to simply sit back and see what happens Saturday evening.
"I can only handle what I can handle,” Tagovailoa said. “I'm going to let the committee, the voters, let them handle all of that. I'm just grateful to be here and be named one of the finalists with Dwayne and Kyler."